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Op-Ed | Why I’m Leaving Neiman Marcus

Today’s retail corporations make meaningful innovation almost impossible, argues Scott Emmons, the former head of Neiman Marcus’ innovation lab.
Neiman Marcus store | Source: Shutterstock
  • Scott Emmons

NEW YORK, United States — "Retail innovation," "the store of the future" and "digital-first customer experience" will dominate the headlines coming from National Retail Federation's "Big Show" in New York this week. Yet we know that retailers are far from delivering what they must to guard against doomsday scenarios for physical stores.

After 16 years working for a top luxury retailer, I can say with confidence that traditional players in the US and abroad are not innovating the right way. Processes are broken, execution is too slow, politics stalls decision-making and resources are too scarce.

Corporate innovation programs seem to start strong and sharp, but over time, they are devoured and diminished by surrounding day-to-day business processes, making maintaining momentum nearly impossible. It’s one thing to talk about agility and risk, but when you’re not built for either, measured by cost reductions and operating silos, results tend to be only incremental.

While corporate leaders want to be recognized globally as innovators, they are hesitant to invest the capital or risk the potential for failure that comes with true innovation. Who loses in the end? Investors who bet on a bright future for retail and consumers who crave delightful shopping experiences.

It’s time for that to change.

I’ve learned this first hand as the founder and head of one of the first and leading retail innovation labs in the world. Neiman Marcus iLab has been ranked a frontrunner in retail by several media outlets over the years. Some of our past innovations include a memory mirror, 4K touch table lookbooks, store associate IOT communicators, intelligent mobile phone charging stations and new fitting room technology. These stories have generated a lot of press coverage, and also increased sales in stores.

But all of these innovations, in my view, are far from enough for any retailer to win in the long run. We need to do more. And faster. The trouble is that internal challenges in a large corporation today makes the job of an innovator — whether you’re the CIO, CDO, CMO or Head of Digital — nearly impossible.

Here are the three of the main roadblocks:

1. Poor strategy

Technology must actually solve a real problem or make things easier for the customer. Internal innovation teams, largely pressured to create PR moments, do not think long term and end up investing in short sighted experiences that have no staying power and don’t really add value to the consumer.

An example would be early mobile wallets that required an app to be opened and the customer to drill down to a QR code to pay. It turns out that it was just as easy or easier to take out your traditional credit card to complete your transaction. Seamless and intuitive was not achieved until touchless payment technologies came into play. A tech expert would recognize that it was too early to invest in mobile wallets and a bit more was needed to secure adoption.

2. Lack of buy-in

Technology and innovation needs to be something the executive leadership really believes in to empower internal leaders to evangelize change, cut through the politics and roadblocks created by the clashing of CMOs, CTOs and CIOs, and ultimately create excitement for those in the company that will implement such innovations.

When deploying new technologies into a store, it is critical that sales teams understand the use case and are fully trained in its operation. Sales associates are the frontline ambassadors to in-store technology, if they are not engaged, the tech will end up in the corner gathering dust. Ignoring the training that must accompany technology deployments can easily doom them to failure. But such training can only successfully take place with support from the C-suite.

3. Lack of resources

Another challenge traditional retailers face is that they often do not have the right teams and structures in place to support new customer facing digital capabilities. For all modern retailers, excellence in deploying and managing technology must be one of their core competencies. But while some have a good team discovering new technologies, no one has enough capacity and resource to dedicate to the integration of these new ideas. Without a team supporting the partner startup and spending hours problem-solving challenges, pilots are too often bound to fail.

For fashion and retail brands to succeed, they need to shift from an internally driven-culture to one focused on open innovation by partnering with the world’s top technologies and talent. Some of the best tech minds and experts do not want a corporate job, they want a partnership. And an energized team of outside experts is what the industry really needs — an agile workforce that can act as an extension of internal teams. By relying on a strategy that taps into this pool of outside talent and experts, CEOs will be able to deliver on a bright vision on the future of retail.

It’s for this reason, I decided to step down this year from Neiman Marcus, after almost two decades in retail, to solve these challenges as an advocate of open innovation, from the outside. By joining a consultancy firm solely focused on curating and implementing top solutions for retail, my hope is to feed digital transformation with real results and deliver much needed support to all of those executives who, like me, live to evolve the store experience. After all, it is really time for retail leaders to go beyond the talk, and actually do something real about it.

Scott Emmons is the founder and former head of the Neiman Marcus iLab, now CTO of innovation consultancy, TheCurrent Global.

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The Business of Fashion

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